The pre-campaign period comprises the two year span from the last presidential election to the mid-term congressional elections. This is a time for potential candidates to determine if they have the requisite fire in the belly to pursue a presidential race, can raise enough funds to put forth a credible effort, and can win or at least shape the debate.

Laying the Groundwork

The pre-campaign period, that is the time between the last presidential election and the mid-term elections, is a critical time for potential presidential candidates to position themselves.  Current and former officials and others consider possible bids and there is much speculation about who will run.  A few prospects actively signal their intentions to run, while the majority remain coy and noncommittal.

There are many reasons not to get in "campaign mode" and start aggressively chasing a presidential dream too far out from an election.  It is not seemly.  It is not efficient, since people are focused on mid-term campaigns.  It may not be prudent, particularly if one is already serving in public office or has other job responsibilities.  And, once an individual becomes a candidate there are FEC requirements to contend with. 

Thus when responding to "the question," most presidential prospects will typically state that they are "too busy to think about it now" or are "focused on the midterms" or will decide after the midterms, while not ruling anything out.  A few prospects will admit to "seriously thinking about it." 

Privately, some of the presidential prospects have all but made up their minds that they will run.  More are likely keeping their options open and waiting to see the shape of the political landscape following the midterm elections.  Some may have no intention of running, but enjoy the "potential presidential candidate" label because it draws attention to their ideas or increases their marketability.     

There are many ways a presidential prospect can lay the groundwork for a White House run in the pre-campaign period.  Some activities are overt and some occur behind the scenes.  Behind the scenes, a presidential hopeful can cultivate and build relationships with party leaders and donors.  He or she can work to address weaknesses, for example practicing to improve his or her speaking style or filling gaps in his or her knowledge.

Among the overt ways in which an individual can lay the groundwork for potential presidential campaigns are:

• support candidates and party committees (through direct contributions, speaking at fundraising events and making endorsements);

• find reasons to visit the key states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina or connect with activists from those states;

• visit other key states in the nominating process;

• make the rounds at state party conventions and gatherings;

• speak to key constituency groups (for example, Republican prospects reach out to social conservatives, Tea Party activists or the NRA, while Democrats reach out to labor or environmental groups);

• test messages and position themselves on key issues and so as to appeal to core constituencies;

• write a book and do a book tour.

Most of the potential candidates have or form some kind of vehicle to engage in their political activities and travels.  Leadership PACs and 501(c)(4)s are most common.  A leadership PAC allows a potential candidate to make contributions to various candidates and party committees, and it may run independent expenditure ads in support of candidates; in addition to national PACs some prospects may establish state PACs.  501(c)(4) organizations, which allow for nonpartisan education and advocacy on issues, do not permit engaging in campaigning as a primary purpose.

The timing and extent of a potential candidate's overt activities depend on his or her career trajectory and prominence in the public eye.  A lesser known figure or one who has not held public office for a number of years may have to do much more of this foundational work than a rock star prospect.  Then Sen. Barack Obama did relatively little campaign-type activity in 2005-06, yet because of his star quality he was seen as a top-tier candidate and ultimately emerged as the nominee.  The challenges potential 2016 candidates such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or former Gov. Jeb Bush would face if they run are different than those of prospects who have a more limited national profile.

A major objective at this stage of the process is to build credibility as a possible presidential candidate.  Recent accomplishments in public office provide a good foundation upon which to build.  A prospect can work to develop his or her policy chops.  Fundraising ability is seen as an important indicator of ability to wage a credible campaign.  Media coverage, such as feature articles in national magazines, enhances credibility.  Grassroots support or the absence thereof can be a telling indicator as to how a potential candidate might fare if he or she enters the race.  Activists can take various steps to promote their favored potential candidates, ranging from individual expressions of support, forming fan club type website or Facebook page, or organizing a formal committee.  The two most high profile independent efforts in 2013-14 were Ready for Hillary and the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, both organized as super PACs.

Party Activity

In addition to manoeuvering of individual presidential prospects, the pre-campaign period is also a time when the major party committees put details of their nominating processes in place.  Following the 2012 campaign, Republicans moved to approve significant rules changes designed to bring about a stronger nominee, while Democrats made mostly technical changes to their rules. 

Additionally, both parties undertook site selection processes to determine the cities to host their national conventions in 2016.  RNC chairman Reince Priebus signalled his intention to hold the party's convention in late-June or mid-July, earlier than in recent cycles.

Also during this time, parties and allied groups (most notably American Bridge 21st Century and America Rising) track the activities of potential candidates of the opposing party, highlighting scandals, gaffes and miscues.

Meanwhile, Lots of Speculation

Aside from the thousands of party activists, political junkies, and pundits around the country, most Americans, facing more immediate concerns, pay little heed to presidential campaign related activity during the pre-campaign period.  The lack of attention to a race that is still one or two years away is probably a healthy sign. 

At such an early stage of the process the waters are murky and confused, like a pond with koi flashing about.  News organizations occasionally run stories that have a presidential campaign angle or a paragraph here and there on presidential race implications.  Feature articles start to illuminate some of the contenders.  While careful study can provide some insights, there are a lot of meaningless and at times ridiculous polls and speculation and the "big fish" may be hard to spot. 

In sum, the pre-campaign period provides a time for an individual to determine if he or she has the requisite fire in the belly to pursue a presidential race, can raise enough funds to put forth a credible effort, and can win or at least shape the debate.  Candidates may come to a decision after the November 2014 midterm elections or over the holidays with their families, but by the first few months of 2015 a decision on a presidential run will be imperative, although a formal announcement may be months off.

The View in 2013-14

The most frequently mentioned 2016 Republican presidential prospects include a mix of current and former elected officials.  Current officials include Govs. Chris Christie (NJ), Bobby Jindal (LA), John Kasich (OH), Mike Pence (IN), Rick Perry (TX) and Scott Walker (WI), U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (TX), Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), and Marco Rubio (FL), and U.S. Reps. Pete King (NY) and Paul Ryan (WI).  Former elected officials include former Govs. Jeb Bush (FL) and Mike Huckabee (AR) now of Florida and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) now of No. Virginia.  A year-long draft effort seeking to persuade retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson to run had him sounding like a candidate.  Christie, Jindal, Perry, Cruz, Paul, Rubio and Santorum have been among the more high profile in their activities, Kasich, Pence, Walker, Portman, Ryan and Bush less so.  Four of the potential candidates are from Florida (Bush, Rubio, Huckabee and recent transplant Carson) and two and a half from Texas (Cruz and Perry, plus Paul, who grew up there).  Although it seems highly improbable, former Gov. Mitt Romney's name popped up quite a few times.  Many others have been subject of occasional media speculation including former UN Ambassador John Bolton and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

On the Democratic side, conventional wisdom and media attention in 2013-14 focused to a huge degree on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; if she runs she would benefit from establishment support and be a huge favorite.  A few others have shown interest.  Gov. Martin  O'Malley (MD) has been most open about preparing for a run.  Vice President Joe Biden has kept his name in the mix.  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said he would be prepared to run, and has made visits to the early states.  Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (MT)'s name popped up from time to time before a couple of controversial remarks in mid-2014 dimmed speculation.  Former Sen. James Webb (VA) started getting modest attention following publication of his memoir in May 2014, and in September said he was "seriously looking at the possibliity" of running.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY)'s name appeared on many lists, but he did nothing to cultivate a national profile.  Many progressives would like to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) run but she said repeatedly, "I am not running for president."

In terms of potential third party and independent candidates, at this early point it does not appear that there will be anyone who will be able to raise a credible challenge to the major party candidates.  Former Gov. Gary Johnson (NM), the 2012 Libertarian nominee, and Dr. Jill Stein (MA), the 2012 Green Party nominee, both look as if they intend to run again in 2016.